With her darkly seductive Psy/Changeling world, Nalini Singh has created "a sensual, dangerous adventure not to be missed" (New York Times bestselling author Lora Leigh). Now, as the deadly Psy Council tightens its grip, a rebel Psy scientist finds herself at the mercy of a changeling who has sworn vengeance against her kind...
Separated from her son and forced to create a neural implant that will mean the effective enslavement of her psychically gifted race, Ashaya Aleine is the perfect Psy--cool, calm, emotionless...at least on the surface. Inside, she's fighting a desperate battle to save her son and escape the vicious cold of the PsyNet. Yet when escape comes, it leads not to safety, but to the lethal danger of a sniper's embrace.
DarkRiver sniper Dorian Christensen lost his sister to a Psy killer. Though he lacks the changeling ability to shift into animal form, his leopard lives within. And that leopard's rage at the brutal loss is a clawing darkness that hungers for vengeance. Falling for a Psy has never been on Dorian's agenda. But charged with protecting Ashaya and her son, he discovers that passion has a way of changing the rules...
Unedited Advance Excerpt
In the end, the retraction was deadly simple. The sniper had been given the precise coordinates the car would travel along the sleepy rural road, knew exactly how many people were in the vehicle, where the child was sitting. According to his information, the child was blindfolded, but the sniper still didn't like doing this with an innocent in the vehicle.
However, if left in the hands of his captors, the child would become the unwitting instrument of the worst kind of evil. And then he would die. The sniper didn't kill lightly, but to keep a child safe, he would do much worse.
"Go," the sniper said into the air, the sound picked up by his earpiece and transmitted to those below.
A slow-moving truck veered out of the opposite lane without warning, crashing into the side of the target car with a smooth expertise that forced the vehicle off the road, but would have done little damage to the people inside--they couldn't afford to harm the child. More than that, they refused to harm the child. But it wasn't the child the sniper found in his sights as soon as the car came to a halt.
A single precise shot and the windshield shattered.
The driver and his adult passenger were dead within the next two seconds, a clean bullet hole each in the center of their foreheads. The bullets were designed not to exit, thereby minimizing danger to the backseat passengers.
An instant later, the rear doors slid back and two men jumped out, one of whom stared straight at the sniper's location high up in the spreading branches of an ancient pine. The sniper felt a blunt force graze his mind, but the guard had left his telepathic strike too late. A bullet lodged in the Psy male's throat with fatal accuracy even as he focused his power. The fourth man went down with a silent bullet wound through his chest, having failed to locate the sniper's partner.
The sniper was already moving by the time the last body hit the ground, his rifle in hand. He left behind no trace of who he was and when he reached the car, he touched nothing. "Did they get out a psychic alert?" he asked the unseen watcher.
"Likely. Road's still clear, but we need to move fast-- reinforcements will be here in minutes if the Council has teleportation-capable Tks on hand."
The sniper looked through the open doors and saw the final remaining passenger. A tiny boy, barely four and a half years old. He wasn't only blindfolded. His ears had been plugged and his hands tied behind his back. Near-total sensory deprivation.
The sniper growled and became a man named Dorian again, his cold control falling away to expose the deeply protective nature of his beast. He might have been born lacking the changeling ability to shift into animal form, but he carried the leopard within. And that leopard was enraged by the callous treatment meted out to this defenseless child. Reaching in, he gathered the stiff, scared body in his arms, his hold far gentler than anyone would've believed. "I have him."
Another vehicle appeared out of nowhere. This one was sleek, silver, nothing like the now abandoned truck, though the driver was the same man. "Let's go," Clay said, his eyes a flat green.
Getting into the back seat, Dorian ripped off his facemask and put away the gun before cutting through the boy's bindings with the pocketknife he carried everywhere. Blood slicked his fingers and he drew back so fast, he sliced open a thin line on his own palm. But when he looked closer, he realized he hadn't accidentally cut the child--the boy had been struggling against his bonds for what must've been hours. His wrists were raw.
Biting off a brutal oath, he slid the knife back into his jeans and took out the plugs from the boy's ears, removing his blindfold a second later. Unexpected blue-gray eyes looked into his, startling in a face with skin the color of aged gold, a dusky brown that almost glowed. "Keenan."
The boy didn't say anything, his face preternaturally calm. So young and he'd already begun the road to Silence, begun to learn to suppress his emotions and become a good, robotic Psy. But his calm facade aside, he was too young to hide his bone-chilling fear from the changeling who watched him, the sharp bite of it insulting to Dorian's senses. Children were not meant to be bound and used as pawns. It was not a fair fight.
The car came to a stop. The opposite passenger-side door opened and then Judd was sliding inside, his gun strapped to his back. "We have to do it now or they'll track him through the PsyNet." The other man's eyes were a cold brown when he stripped off his own mask, but his hands careful as he touched the boy's face. "Keenan, we have to cut the Net link."
The boy stiffened, leaned into Dorian. "No."
Dorian put an arm around his fragile, breakable body. "Be brave. Your mom wants you safe."
Those astonishing eyes looked up at him. "Will you kill me?"
Dorian looked to Judd. "It gonna hurt?"
A slight nod.
Dorian held Keenan's hand, the boy's blood mixing with his own where he'd sliced open his palm. "It'll hurt like a bitch, but then you'll be okay."
Keenan's eyes widened at the vulgarity, exactly as Dorian had intended. In that moment of distraction, Judd closed his eyes. Dorian knew the Psy male was working furiously to unlock the child's shields and get inside his mind--so he could cut Keenan's link to the PsyNet, the psychic network that connected every Psy on the planet, but for the renegades. Bare seconds later, the boy screamed and it was a sound of such brutal suffering that Dorian almost killed Judd for it. The sound cut off as abruptly as it had begun and Keenan slumped into Dorian's arms, unconscious.
"Jesus," Clay said from the front, merging into a busy highway even as he spoke. "The kid okay? Tally will kill me if we get a scratch on him."
Dorian brushed back the boy's hair. It was straight, unlike his mother's curls. She'd had it tamed into a braid the one and only time he'd seen her--through the scope of his rifle--but he'd been able to tell. "He's breathing."
"Well"--Judd paused, white lines bracketing his mouth--"that was unexpected."
"What?" Dorian took off his jacket and covered Keenan in its warmth.
"I was supposed to pull him into our familial Net." The other man rubbed absently at his temple, eyes on Keenan. "But he went...elsewhere. Since he's not dead, I'm guessing he's linked into DarkRiver's secret network--the one I'm not supposed to know about."
Dorian shook his head. "Impossible." They all knew that Psy brains were different from changeling or human--Psy needed the biofeedback provided by a psychic network. Cut that off and death was close to instantaneous, the reason why defectors from the PsyNet were few and far between. Judd's family had only just made it out by linking together to form the tiny LaurenNet. Their psychic gifts meant they could manipulate that net and accept new members. But DarkRiver's net, the Web of Stars, was different.
"There is no way he could've entered our web." Dorian scowled. "It's a changeling construct." Created by loyalty, not need, it welcomed only a select few--leopard sentinels who had sworn an oath to the DarkRiver alpha, Lucas, and their mates.
Judd shrugged and leaned back against the seat. "Maybe the boy has some changeling blood."
"He'd be a shapeshifter if he had that much of it," Clay pointed out. "Plus, my beast doesn't sense an animal in him. He's Psy."
"All I know is that as soon as the PsyNet was closed to him, his consciousness arrowed away from me and toward Dorian. I can't see your web, but my guess is that he's linked to you"--he nodded at Dorian--"and through you, to the Web. I could try to cut that bond," he continued, his reluctance open, "and force him into our familial net, but it'd only traumatize him again."
Dorian looked down at the boy and felt the trapped leopard inside him rise in a protective crouch. "Then I guess he stays with us. Welcome to DarkRiver, Keenan Aleine."
* * *
Miles away, in a lab located in the bowels of the earth, Ashaya Aleine staggered under the backwash of a devastating mental blow. A sudden cut and he was gone, her son, the link she'd had without knowing she had it.
Either Keenan was dead, or...
She remembered the first of the two notes she'd gotten out through the lab's garbage chute the previous week, a note that would have been transmitted to a human named Talin McKade by those who were loyal to Ashaya rather than the tyrannical ruling Council.
I'm calling in my IOU.
The best case scenario was that Talin McKade and her friends had come through. Ashaya's thoughts traveled back to that night two months ago when she'd put her life on the line to free a teenager and a young girl from the lethal danger of the lab--before they became the latest casualties in a series of genocidal experiments run by another scientist.
It was as she was returning to the lab that he'd found her, the unnamed sniper with a voice as cool as any Psy assassin's.
"I have a gun pointed at your temple. I don't miss."
"I saved two innocent lives. You won't kill me."
A hint of laughter, but she couldn't be sure. "What did you want the IOU for?"
"You're male. Therefore you aren't Talin McKade."
"I'm a friend. She has others. And we pay our debts."
"If you want to repay your debt," she said, "kidnap my son."
With her note, she'd set that very event in motion. Then she'd cashed in every favor owed to her and put psychic safeguards in place to protect Keenan against recapture through the PsyNet. But now Keenan was gone--she knew that beyond any shadow of a doubt. And no Psy could survive outside the Net.
Yet, another part of her reminded her, the DarkRiver leopard pack had two Psy members who had survived very well. Could it be that Talin McKade's friends were cats? That supposition was pure guesswork on her part as she had nothing on which to base her theory or check her conclusions. She was under a psychic and electronic blackout, her Internet access cut off, her entry to the vast resources of the PsyNet policed by telepaths under Councilor Ming LeBon's command. So she, a woman who trusted no one, would have to trust the sniper had spoken true, and Keenan was safe.
Head still ringing from the shearing off of that inexplicable bond, she sat absolutely frozen for ten long minutes, getting her body back under control. No one could be allowed to learn that she'd felt the backlash, that she knew her son was no longer in the PsyNet. She shouldn't have known. Every individual Psy was an autonomous unit. Even in the fluid darkness of the Net, where each mind existed as a burning psychic star stripped of physical limitations, they encased themselves in multiple shields, remaining separate.
There were no blurred boundaries, no threads tying one consciousness to another. It hadn't always been that way--according to the hidden records she'd unearthed in her student days, the PsyNet had once reflected the emotional entanglements of the people involved. Silence had severed those bonds--of affection, of blood--until isolation was all they were...or that was the accepted view. Ashaya had always known it for a lie.
Because of Amara.
And now, because of Keenan.
Keenan and Amara. Her twin flaws, the double-edged sword that hung over her every second of every day. One mistake, just one, was all it would take to bring that sword crashing down.
A door opened at her back. "Yes?" she said calmly, though her mind was overflowing with memories usually contained behind impenetrable walls.
"Councilor LeBon has called through."
Ashaya glanced at the slender blonde who had spoken. "Thank you."
With a nod, Ekaterina left. They knew not to speak treasonous words within these walls. Too many eyes. Too many ears. Switching the clear screen of her computer to communications mode, she accepted the call. She no longer had the ability to call out. The lockdown of the lab had been ordered after the children's escape, though officially, Jonquil Duchslaya and Noor Hassan were listed as deceased--by Ashaya's hand.
However, she knew Ming was suspicious. In lieu of torture, he'd shut her inside this plascrete tomb, tons of earth above her head, knowing that she had a psychological defect, that she reacted negatively to the thought of being buried. "Councilor," she said as Ming's face appeared onscreen, his eyes the night-sky of a cardinal, "what can I do for you?"
"You're meant to be having a visitation with your son this week."
She focused on regulating her pulse--an after-effect of the sudden disconnection from Keenan. To carry this plan through to its completion, she had to remain cold as ice, more Silent than the Council itself. "It's part of the agreement."
"That visitation will be delayed."
"Why?" She had very little power here, but she wasn't completely under Ming's thumb--they both knew she was the only M-Psy capable of completing the work on Protocol I.
"The child's biological father has asked to offer him specialized training. The request has been granted."
Ashaya knew with absolute certainty that Zie Zen would never have taken that step without consulting her. But knowing that didn't tell her whether Keenan was dead or alive. "The delay will complicate the training I'm giving him."
"The decision has been made." Ming's eyes turned obsidian, the few white stars drowning in black. "You should focus on your research. You've made no significant progress in the past two months."
Two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. The period of time since the children's escape...and her effective burial in the Implant Lab.
"I've conclusively solved the problem of Static," she reminded him, dangerously aware of the growing tightness around her ribcage--a stress reaction, another indicator of the chinks Keenan's sudden disappearance had made in her psychological armor. "No implant would work if we were constantly bombarded with the thoughts of others." That was what the Council intended for the PsyNet--that it become a huge hive mind, interconnected and seamless. No renegades, nothing but conformity.
However, pure conformity was a non-viable goal. In simple terms, a hive could not survive without a queen. Which was why Ashaya had been instructed to devise several different grades of implants. Those implanted with the highest grade would possess the ability to exercise total control over every other individual in the hive, to the point of being able to enter their minds at will, direct them with the ease of puppet masters. No thought would be private, no disagreement possible.
Ming gave a slight nod. "Your breakthrough with Static was impressive, but it doesn't compensate for your lack of progress since."
"With respect," Ashaya said, "I disagree. No one else even came close to eliminating Static. The theorists all stated it to be an impossible task." She thought fast and took another precarious step along the tightrope. Too far and Ming wouldn't hesitate to kill her. Too little and it would paint her as weak, open to exploitation. "If you want me to rush the process, I'll do so. But if the implants then malfunction, do not look to place the blame on me. I want that in writing."
"Are you sure you want to make an enemy out of me, Ashaya?" A quiet question devoid of any emphasis and yet the threat was a sinister shadow pressing at her mind. Ming flexing his telepathic muscles? Probable, given that he was a cardinal telepath with a facility for mental combat. He could turn her brain into mush with a glancing thought.
Ashaya supposed that if she'd been human or changeling, she'd have felt fear. But she was Psy, conditioned since birth to feel nothing. Hard and inflexible, that conditioning not only allowed her to play politics with Ming, it acted as a shield, hiding the secrets she could never reveal. "It is not a case of enemies, sir," she said, and--making another rapid decision--let her shoulders slump a fraction. When she next spoke, it was in a rapid fire stream. "I'm trying my hardest, but I've hit what appears to be a major obstacle, and I'm the only one with the skill to solve it so I've been working round-the-clock and I've been buried underground for two months with no access to the PsyNet and--"
"You need to have a medical checkup." Ming's stance had changed, become hyperalert. "When was the last time you slept?"
Ashaya pressed the pads of her fingers over her eyelids. "I don't recall. Being underground makes it difficult for me to keep track." A debilitating condition such as claustrophobia would have gotten most Psy "rehabilitated", their memories wiped, their personalities destroyed. Ashaya had been left alone only because her brain was more valuable undamaged. For now.
"I think I had a full night's sleep approximately one week ago." Her logs would verify that. She had deliberately interfered with her own sleeping patterns, building her story for this very day...on the faith of a human's honor.
...we pay our debts...
But even if the sniper had kept his word, it was clear that something had gone wrong. All her theories to the contrary notwithstanding, it was highly probable that Keenan was dead. She dropped her hand and stared Ming in the face, letting her own go slack as if with fatigue. If Keenan was dead, then she no longer had anything to lose by putting this plan in motion.
"I'm sending a pickup team," Ming said. "You'll be taken to a specialist facility."
"Not necessary." Ashaya closed her hand over her organizer, the small computer device that held all her experimental and personal data. "One of my team can check me out--we're all medically trained."
"I want you fully evaluated by the clinicians at the Center."
She wondered if he was threatening her even now. The Center was where defective Psy were sent to be rehabilitated. "Ming, if you believe me to be compromised, please have the courtesy to say so to my face. I'm not a child to run screaming." Except of course, Psy children didn't scream much beyond the first year of life. She wondered if Keenan had screamed at the end. Her hand tightened, the cool hardness of the organizer anchoring her to reality. Silence, she reminded herself, you are a being of perfect Silence. An ice-cold automaton without emotion or heart. It was the only thing she could be.
Ming's expression didn't change. "I'll talk to you after the evaluation." The screen went off.
She knew she had less than five minutes, if that. Ming had access to airjets and teleportation-capable telekinetics. If he wanted her whisked out of here, she would be. She flipped over her organizer, slid down the cover and pulled out the one-centimeter-squared chip that held every piece of data in the device. Not allowing herself second thoughts, she swallowed the chip, her movements calculated to appear innocuous to the watching cameras.
Next, she reached into her pocket, found a replacement chip with enough duplicate data to allay suspicion--as least for a few days--and slotted it in. Just in time. There was a flicker at the corner of her eye. She swiveled to find a male standing there. He was dressed in pure unrelieved black, but for the golden insignia on his left shoulder--two snakes locked in combat. Ming's personal symbol.
"Ma'am, my name is Vasic. I'm to escort you to the Center."
She nodded, rose. His eyes betrayed no movement as she slipped her organizer into the pocket of her lab coat, but she knew he'd noted its placement. Ming would have plenty of time to go through it while she was being analyzed. "I didn't expect pickup by Tk."
It wasn't a question, so the other Psy didn't answer.
"Do you require touch?" she asked, coming to stand beside him. Psy did not touch as a rule, but some powers were strengthened by contact.
"No," he said, proving her suspicion that Ming had sent one of his strongest men. It mattered little that his eyes were gray rather than cardinal night-sky--exceptions such as Ming aside, cardinals were often too cerebral to be much good at the practical side of things. Like killing.
The male met her eyes. "If you would please lower your basic shields."
She did so and a second later, her bones seemed to melt from the inside out. Part of her, the scientist, wondered if telekinetics felt the same loss of self, the same sense of their bodies liquefying into nothing. Then the sensation ended and she found herself facing a door that existed nowhere in her lab. "Thank you," she said, reengaging her shields.
He nodded at the door. "Please go through."
She knew he would stand guard, make sure she didn't attempt an escape. It made her wonder why he'd teleported her outside, rather than inside, the room. Since, no matter what happened, this was her last day as the head M-Psy on the Implant Team, she asked him.
His answer was unexpected. "I am not a team player."
She understood but pretended not to. Was Ming testing her allegiance, trying to tempt her with the kinds of statements used by the rebels to communicate with one another? "I'm afraid I don't follow. Perhaps you can explain it to me later." Without waiting for an answer, she pushed through the door, already able to feel the tingling in the tips of her fingers and toes.
The chip she'd swallowed contained close to a terabyte of data, the result of years of research. But it also contained something else--a coating of pure, undiluted poison. She had spent hours that she should have been working on the implant, perfecting the unique properties of the poison for this one attempt.
The calculation was simple: Ashaya intended to escape the Implant Lab.
With the heightened security, the only way to escape was to die.
So Ashaya would die.